Should you encourage your child to take a gap year before college?

Should you (would you?) encourage your child to take a “gap year” before starting college (i.e. after 12th)? If no, why not? If yes, how would you suggest the child plan the year? What activities/experiences would you hope for the child to take up? Does your answer change depending upon whether the child is going to do college in India vs the US?

My friend Suvikas Bhandari’s daughter just finished a very successful gap year. And she has written about her experience. In addition, I wanted the opinions of others who have gone through this in the past, or are thinking about it.

So I posted this question on my Facebook page and got a bunch of great responses, some of which I’m reproducing below.

Note: I am NOT talking about taking an year off to “study for the JEE.” The gap year is not about studying and academics. Studying in an Indian college becomes all about just the subjects, and that too, often theory. A gap year is about taking an year off so the child can travel alone, take up one or more jobs/internships, learn some out-of-the-way skills, and generally get life experience. A gap year helps with giving a sense of perspective, a sense of responsibility, and most importantly, an idea of what matters in the real world (which can help a lot in college to make you focus on the right things).

Gap is Good – But should it be well planned or not?

In general, most people felt that a gap year is good – but many qualified the statement by saying something like “gap with proper guidance for a limited time frame would be really productive” or “gap year but should have full plan on hand before u decide on it”.

On the other hand, Rujuta disagrees:

However, I am against having a detailed plan – I would say have a plan but be prepared to throw it out of the window when you think it isn’t working or your experience along the way takes you in a different direction. Plan to be out of your comfort zone…plan to do things you have never done before….don’t preplan what you want to learn….don’t get demotivated if all of the year wasn’t ‘productive’. I wish I had the opportunity to do this.

First Hand Experiences

The best comments I felt were first-hand accounts from my friends who themselves took a gap year (intentionally, or forced due to circumstances) and wrote about that.

For example, Idea Smith shared her own experience:

I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ll share something. I had a gap year of sorts just before I graduated (long story involving science-vs-arts battle with family, low attendance and ATKTs). In that time, I worked out, lived in another city for 3 months, interned with an ad agency, did a life program called the Landmark Forum and found my first boyfriend. Having that year really changed the course of my life because it gave me a chance to think and explore outside the rigid social construct I was in. After I graduated, I actually worked for a year alongside preparing for CAT. I didn’t need a gap year that someone like me normally would have, because I had had it the year earlier.

It also helped me discover that I would always need periodic breaks of that sort to collect my thoughts and refocus my attention. That’s what kept me from getting desperate in 2003, after the recession and when jobs were scarce. It’s also what allowed me to take a sabbatical in 2005 at a time when people were holding on to their jobs. And finally, all these helped me quit my corporate job in 2009 to do other things – knowing that it was okay to stop running, think and even do something else, without always having a 10-step plan and bulletpointed details down.

That was 15 years ago and I know a lot of things have changed. It might be good if the family/parents did not impose a lot of activities on their child. Instead, if possible it might make a lot of sense to encourage the child to think about what interests him/her and then help him/her find activities that let him/her explore it.

And Ankit Saxena had a similar story:

I have my own interesting experience on this one. I was forced to take a gap year in between my engineering because of attendance shortage, which meant I had to lose an year and also a complete 9 months free time without college.I was an electronic engg. student but always wanted to learn computer science (as I was good at it since childhood days) , but you dont necessarily get to choose the college and branch at your will.

So in my “gap” months , I had the best time of my life. I joined a tech startup based out of my college E-cell and learned how to write bigger softwares and not just palindrome programs. We implemented ERP for a Bangalore based company and made a POS solution for the hospitality sector – with Windows Mobile App for stewards in restaurant to take orders and implemented the system in a couple of big restaurants in Mumbai.

I learned about softwares, startups, business, execution and everything about sustaining chaos. Six months later I was leading software development for the company with a team of 6 engineers. All before I turned 20.

PS: I went back to studies after 9 months and topped my branch that semester and did my own startup from the same E-cell a year later.

So in hindsight, according to me, its always good to take a break from the social norm stream and explore what you like.

In Depth Reading on this topic

Manish Kumar suggests a couple of books that you could read, about Indian kids who took a gap year and wrote about it:

I have taken such break myself and I recently wrote about my experience here in a note. I also know many people who have taken “gap year” for various reasons…

If you’re curious, I would highly recommend 2 books by Indian kids who have taken “gap year” long ago.

(1) Free From School by Rahul Alvares.
(2) Learning the Heart Way by Samyukta

The printed copies are not available for these books, but I guess Gutenberg project has soft copies. Both are highly recommended for older children – maybe 8th standard & up!

(Manish also points out that Marathi hardcopies of these books are available from

Avinash Punekar pointed out one possible downside of a gap year:

BTW, most Indian companies tend to reject candidates with education/career gap automatically.

Note, however, that some companies do it, not all or even many. Also, if a company has a stupid policy like this, I am not entirely sure of whether you should be joining this company.

There are many other interesting comments which I’m not reproducing in the interest of keeping this short, but please check out the original discussion.

Don’t send your child to a boarding school

One of the most common issues that trouble parents who stay in small town India has to do with the dismal quality of schools in their town, and when they should pack off their child to a good school in a big city for improving their education and increasing their chances of success in their career.

Along these lines, here is a typical question, that someone recently asked me:

<X> is studying in Std 7 and she is a bright student. She stays in a small town and there is not much option of good schools. In fact there is only one english medium school of descent standard. <X>’s parents want to send her to some boarding school so that she can get a better platform and can get other exposure in addition to good studies. Basically they wants that she gets more opportunity to build her career, which is not possible in her current school.

Initially I was not in favor of sending small kids to boarding school because then they are away from their parents. But I was convinced that such a bright student deserves a better platform to shape her future.

Just wanted to know your view on this.

Here is my view on this:

I am not in favor of sending a school kid to boarding school. At this stage, it is more important for her to have a loving home, and parents who set a good example – that is something that cannot be recreated anywhere else, and it has a huge impact on how her life turns out. In the long term, quality of schooling has a much lower impact on overall happiness, and sensible life choices than closeness to caring parents. If she’s bright, the career will take care of itself, as long as the sensible choices and happiness are there. Maybe it might take 5 years longer, because she is not in a big city and top school. In such matters, for success: “Der hai, andher nahiN.”

I would suggest the following:

  1. Get a good fast broadband internet connection
  2. Introduce her to sites like Khan Academy
  3. Encourage her to learn on her own
  4. Allow her to spend lots of time on the internet, if she gets interested in educational sites like Khan Academy, or even Wikipedia browsing.
  5. Watching educational videos or self-help videos, or do-it-yourself videos on YouTube is also recommended.
  6. Get her a Kindle
  7. Encourage her to read. Anything that she’s interested in reading, even trashy novels are fine.
  8. Spend money on buying good books on the Kindle (or even bad books, if she’s reading)

Consider shifting her to a big city, good school either after 10th if she’s a mature and sensible kid, otherwise, after 12th.

For a second opinion on this question, I asked my friend Bhooshan Shukla, who’s a child psychiatrist, whether he agreed or disagreed with me, and here’s his response:

  • I agree with all of your points.
  • Internet is important.

In addition, he felt that in many such cases, it was important to keep this in mind:

It is also v important to keep the child grounded as it is quite common for parents to assume talent in a child. Such kids can be in for a rude shock when exposed to real world later.

In other words, it is quite common for parents to over-estimate the abilities of the child, and then place the burden of unrealistic expectations, which can cause serious problems. So it is important to get a reality check, before starting to push your child too much. (Remember, praise the efforts, not the achievements. The former will make them redouble their efforts, the latter will make them over-confident and lazy.)

Note: there are of course special situations in which it does make sense to send kids to boarding school. Some examples are:

  • If family is going thru extended turmoil and child is better isolated from this trouble. e.g. severe and prolonged illness of a family member.
  • If the family is likely to split or parents are not fully available for the child.
  • If the safety of the child in the family home is compromised, e.g govt servants, bank officers, military officers in border areas. etc.
  • If the family situation/tradition is such that does not really have the ability to provide the minimum discipline that a child needs; in this case, the child is totally pampered at home and will grow up to be a spoilt brat if not for the discipline and hardships of a boarding school.